Possible Arak compromise seen bolstering confidence in Iran talks

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Iran and six world powers are closer to agreement on possible technical modifications for the uncompleted Arak reactor that would greatly reduce proliferation concerns, bolstering negotiators’ confidence as they try to reach a final nuclear deal by July 20th, Iranian and US non-proliferation experts briefed on the discussions said.

The Arak issue “is almost solved,” Seyed Hossein Mousavian, a former Iranian nuclear negotiator now at Princeton University, told Al-Monitor Tuesday.

“I think Arak has been the big area where there has been a narrowing” of differences between Iran and the P5+1, Mark Fitzpatrick, a former State Department nonproliferation official, now with the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London, told Al-Monitor Tuesday.

“Both sides are being positive in their remarks,” Fitzpatrick said. “Part of this positive spin [is that] they are reaching a solution to Arak.”

The possible compromise framework, Mousavian said, is “almost the same” as a plan proposed by a team of Princeton University nuclear experts led by Frank von Hippel in an article entitled ‘A Win-Win Solution on Iran’s Arak reactor,’ that was published this month by Arms Control Today.

“I believe Tehran and the US both agree this framework can work to resolve” the matter, Mousavian said.

Under the plan proposed by von Hippel and colleagues, “the amount of plutonium produced in the Arak reactor could be reduced drastically” by converting “the reactor from using natural uranium fuel to low-enriched uranium fuel,” they write. “With low-enriched fuel, the power could be reduced to 20 or even 10 MWt,” from the reactor’s currently-planned 40-Mwt design, “further reducing plutonium production,” they write.

Their redesign proposals “would reduce plutonium production to less than 1 kilogram per year, comparable to the reduction that would be accomplished by replacing the Arak reactor with a light-water research reactor,” the authors write.

“At the same time, these redesigns would not reduce the usefulness of the reactor for making radioisotopes and conducting research,” they wrote. “Thus, this approach would meet Iran’s needs and would address the concerns of the international community.”

Such modifications, that would “reduce the overall power level of the reactor, and thus decrease the amount of plutonium available in the spent fuel it yields, would indeed significantly reduce the proliferation threat,” Jofi Joseph, a former US government Iran non-proliferation expert said.

“However, this compromise could still run into political opposition from Israel, Gulf States, and the U.S. Congress,” Joseph added, because it still “allows Arak to remain a heavy water moderated reactor. …[which] is not necessary for the production of medical isotopes.”

Mousavian estimated that about 60-70% of the issues for a final nuclear deal may be tentatively agreed or nearly agreed–a slightly more upbeat estimate than the 50-60% offered by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at nuclear talks in Vienna earlier this month.

US negotiators have previously said that no issue is agreed until all of the issues are agreed, and have compared the complex negotiations to a Rubik’s cube.

Among the outstanding issues still to be resolved are Fordo and the overall size of Iran’s enrichment program and the duration of limitations on its size, experts said.

Former State Department arms control advisor Robert Einhorn, in a paper published by the Brookings Institution last month, proposed that Fordo be converted into a Research & Development facility. He also proposed that Iran and the P5+1 could arrive at a compromise on the size of Iran’s enrichment program by defining its practical needs, which are limited in the medium term.

(Photo: This Aug. 26, 2006 file photo shows an aerial view of a heavy-water production plant in the central Iranian town of Arak. AP Photo/ ISNA, Arash Khamoushi, File)

U.S. negotiator to brief Congress on Iran talks

Lead U.S. Iran negotiator, Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, is expected to brief Congressional leaders and relevant committee chiefs in classified session this week on the talks between six world powers and Iran held in Geneva last week.

In a brief conversation last week that did not delve into the details of the Iranian proposal, Sherman told House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking Democrat Eliot Engel “that the Iranians appeared serious,” but cautioned that the “devil’s in the details and made clear that the US negotiators will remain clear eyed as they seek to negotiate a deal to end Iran’s nuclear weapons program,” Engel said in a statement.

“Ranking Member Engel was pleased that the P5+1 reportedly had a productive first round of negotiations with the Iranians in Geneva,” spokesman Daniel Harsha told Al-Monitor Monday.  “But a change in tone is hardly sufficient. He believes pressure brought Iran to the table, and that pressure must be maintained until Iran has verifiably dismantled its nuclear weapons program.“

“The Iranians are masters at negotiation for the sake of buying time,” Harsha said.  “Given that, Ranking Member Engel would only be open to freezing further legislative action on the new sanctions bill if Iran quickly takes a number of concrete and fully verifiable steps to freeze enrichment and other elements of its nuclear weapons program. And he won’t even consider easing sanctions already on the books until Iran verifiably dismantles their program, leaving absolutely no possibility of a rapid ‘breakout.’”

Diplomats from the six world powers and Iran have agreed not to publicize the details of the Iranian proposal presented in two days of talks in Geneva last week (Oct. 15-16).

The new Iranian proposal “appears to have addressed some of our concerns, while leaving others unaddressed,” a senior US official, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Monday. “That is what the upcoming talks will further flesh out. …[The process] has begun and now we need to see what the coming weeks will bring.”

Iran's deputy nuclear negotiators for the first time met with their US counterparts one on one for an hour in Geneva, and conducted the negotiations with their P5+1 counterparts in English, facilitating the pace and candor of the negotiations, western diplomats said.

But western diplomats were cautious in characterizing their reaction to the undisclosed Iranian proposal, describing a deal as still likely some ways off.

“We learned more about their program and their concerns,” a senior western diplomat told journalists in Brussels last week, Reuters reported. “However, it doesn't mean we are close to a solution and that we will have an agreement next month.”

We “got more today than we have ever gotten before, but there’s still a whole lot more we have to get,” a senior US administration official told journalists in Geneva last week, calling the process a “beginning.”

Regarding the seemingly lukewarm reaction, the US official said Monday to keep in mind that it’s not in the P5+1’s interest to sound overly enthusiastic about what the Iranians put on the table, “either from a negotiating perspective….or our own domestic politics.”

The administration would be “concerned about not looking gullible to Congress,” agreed Mark Fitzpatrick, a former State Department nonproliferation official now with the Institute for International and Strategic Studies (IISS) in London, in an interview Monday. Continue reading

Setback at Iran nuclear talks

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Almaty, Kazakhstan__Western diplomats on Friday expressed initial dismay after listening to Iranian negotiators present their response to a revised international nuclear proposal. But after further meetings Friday, western negotiators said the talks had become more substantive, though the sides remained some ways apart.

“We are somewhat puzzled by the Iranians’ characterisation of what they presented,” a western official told journalists after a three hour meeting here between diplomats from Iran and six world powers.

Rather than the “clear and concrete” response the six powers had been seeking, the Iranian nuclear negotiating team offered “some interesting, but not fully explained, general comments on our ideas,” the western official continued.

“It was mainly a reworking of what they said in Moscow,” the official said, referring to a powerpoint on Iran’s proposed framework for negotiations that Tehran envoys presented in Moscow last June.

Earlier Friday, Iran’s deputy nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri, in a mid-day press conference, said Iran had presented a “comprehensive proposal” to international negotiators that stressed the process and endgame, beyond short-term confidence-building steps.

The Islamic Republic of Iran “proposed a practical method to implement a Moscow plan in a smaller scale, and stressed that actions and so-called confidence building measures must be considered as part of a larger, more comprehensive plan,” Bagheri, speaking through a translator, said at a second press conference Friday evening.

But western diplomats expressed initial puzzlement at what they perceived as Iran’s apparant return to debating modalities for negotiations, rather than haggling over specific steps discussed at two recent rounds of talks this year.

“We had a long and substantial discussion on the issues, but we remain a long way apart on the substance,” a western official said at the conclusion of the first day of talks Friday. “We are now evaluating the situation and will meet again tomorrow.”

Diplomats from Iran, the US, UK, France, Germany, Russia, China and the EU are expected to meet again here on Saturday. Iran also held a series of bilateral meetings Friday evening, including with the Russians, Germany, and UK. European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton is expected to meet with Iran’s chief negotiator Saeed Jalili Saturday morning before plenary talks get underway.

Another meeting ‘to narrow gaps’ will possibly be agreed before delegations depart, one official suggested, although it was not yet clear at what level it would be held.

Western diplomats notably sent out the SOS about how things were going downhill early in the first day of the expected two-day talks in an apparent bid to try to salvage seeming progress made in two recent rounds of talks. Iran seeks, before it would agree to suspend its 20% enrichment, to get assurances on a path that will result in recognition of its right to enrich and broader sanctions relief. Western diplomats say Iran should take the first step in a confidence building measure.

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US, Iran nuclear teams to Istanbul for technical talks

Nuclear experts from Iran and six world powers head to Istanbul next week to discuss a revised international proposal that Iranian officials welcomed as a “turning point” at a meeting in Kazakhstan last month.

The U.S. team to the Istanbul talks, to be held March 18, includes two veteran State Department arms control negotiators, Robert Einhorn and Jim Timbie, as well as Jofi Joseph, an Iran director in the White House WMD shop, US officials told the Back Channel Thursday. Einhorn and Timbie previously attended technical talks with Iran held in Istanbul last July, along with then White House WMD czar Gary Samore, who left the administration in January for Harvard.

Iran’s delegation to the technical talks in Istanbul next week is expected, as last July, to be led by Hamid-Reza Asgari, a longtime member of Iran's nuclear negotiating team, who multiple Iranian sources tell Al-Monitor is an Iranian intelligence officer who has been involved in Iran's international arms control discussions for over a decade. Iran's team to Istanbul last July also included Ali Ashgar Soltanieh, Iran’s envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

(A revealing detail on their dynamic comes from a late 2009 US cable, released by Wikileaks, and written by then US envoy to the IAEA Glyn Davies. It describes Soltanieh as having moved to shake US Deputy Energy Secretary Dan Poneman's hand at a 2009 Vienna meeting, “necessitating Iranian Legal Advisor Asgari to pull him [Soltanieh] away from” the U.S. delegation, Davies wrote.)

American and Iranian officials had fairly extensive discussions at the last technical meeting in Istanbul last July, a senior US official, speaking not for attribution, told journalists at P5+1 talks with Iran in Almaty, Kazakhstan last month.

“There’s a little heightened hope that Iran will respond in a meaningful way when they meet,” Mark Fitzpatrick, a former State Department arms control official now with the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London, told the Back Channel Thursday. “If Iran comes back engaging in the details…if they are talking the same language…it would be very much progress.”

President Obama, speaking on Wednesday ahead of his first presidential trip to Israel next week, said that the United States currently assesses it would be at least a year before Iran could manufacture a nuclear weapon if it decided to do so, and the United States and international partners had been intensifying efforts to reach a diplomatic resolution in that window because it would prove more durable.

“Right now, we think it would take over a year or so for Iran to actually develop a nuclear weapon, but obviously we don’t want to cut it too close,” Obama told Israel’s Channel 2 Wednesday, the Associated Press reported.
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More RUMINT: NSS, NEA, CT

No final decision has been made, one official cautioned. But the Obama National Security Staff’s Prem Kumar, the NSS director for Israel and Palestinian affairs who has served as acting Senior Director for the Middle East North Africa since the departure of Steve Simon, may be promoted to keep the job, officials tell the Back Channel.
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Simon has moved to become the head of the International Institute for Strategic Studies-US. Kumar didn’t immediately respond to a query.

Kumar seems to be something of the internal favorite, with several colleagues saying they hope he's chosen to move up. The administration had been mulling a few candidates for the post, however, and may be looking for someone more senior, one source suggested. It's not clear if that thinking has shifted, with the  decision to bring over Assistant Secretary of State Philip Gordon to take over the former Dennis Ross NSS Central Region portfolio, with Senior Directors for MENA, the Persian Gulf, and South Asia (minus India) reporting to him.

US Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson is in the running to be the next Assistant Secretary of State for Near East affairs, sources said. The well regarded career diplomat previously served as US Ambassador to Pakistan. “Anne is very good,” a former diplomatic colleague said, adding the administration is “leaving no stone unturned” in candidates having been reached out to about the post. Others previously rumored in the mix include US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford and NSS Senior Director for the Persian Gulf Puneet Talwar, but Patterson may have the edge.

Sources suggested that the State Counter-Terrorism coordinator may be hired from within. Among the possibilities, Eric Rosand or Michael Jacobson, two senior advisors in the office, experts in the field suggested. The post was previously headed by Dan Benjamin, who has moved on to Dartmouth. Continue reading

Appointment news

Updated:
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Several moves afoot among President Obama's top European security advisors and close allies of National Security Advisor Tom Donilon. Together, sources suggested, they reflect Donilon's increased discretion to make senior National Security Staff appointments in Obama's second term after the move of Denis McDonough to become White House chief of staff, and that he seems inclined to pick trusted associates to oversee some of the most sensitive portfolios.

After four years in Brussels, US Ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder will be named President of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, the Back Channel has learned. The announcement is expected to come as early as this week. Daalder, a former Clinton NSC Europe director and Brookings senior fellow, will head to Chicago in July, when ambassador posts usually rotate.

Philip Gordon, the Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasian Affairs, will join Obama's National Security Staff, administration and diplomatic sources tell the Back Channel, in a senior role overseeing the broader Middle East, at a rank similar to that previously held by Dennis Ross.

Gordon, who has headed the State Department EUR bureau throughout Obama’s first term, will take on a senior NSS coordinator role overseeing the wider Middle East, with senior directors for the Middle East/North Africa and Persian Gulf reporting to him, sources said. Gordon did not immediately respond to a request for guidance from the Back Channel.

Much of Gordon's work handling the State Department Europe portfolio the past four years has been focused on coordinating joint US-European efforts towards the Middle East writ large, including Iran.

(Still to be named: the NSS Senior Director for the Middle East/North Africa previously held by Steve Simon, who has left the White House to head the International Institute for Strategic Studies-US. Sources continue to hear CSIS's Jon Alterman may be in the running, but that could not be confirmed.)

Administration sources have described Daalder and Gordon (also a Brookings alum) as among a group of trusted allies of NSA Donilon, along with NSS Senior Director for Europe Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall.

And one diplomatic source said Monday that he had heard that Sherwood-Randall would be tapped to succeed Gary Samore as the White House coordinator on WMD.  (Neither Sherwood-Randall nor a White House spokesperson responded to requests for guidance.) Continue reading

Diplomats press Iran to stop stalling on nuclear talks

After weeks of Iranian foot-dragging, western negotiators are pressing Iran to commit to a firm date for resumed nuclear talks.

“We have been very surprised to see Iran come back to us again and again with new pre-conditions on the modalities of the talks, for example by changing the venue and delaying their responses,” a spokesperson for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton responded to a question from the Back Channel Wednesday.

Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi was cited in media reports Wednesday proposing Cairo host the next round of talks with the P5+1.

But western diplomats say such reports are “total spin,” and that in fact, Iran has not yet agreed to a new meeting, in Cairo or anywhere else.

“Several venues have been proposed. We do not exclude any, but Iran is proposing different venues all the time,” a European official said. “Iran appears to be trying to delay the process by coming up with new conditions.”

Russia on Wednesday pointedly pressed Iran to stop giving nuclear negotiators the run-around.

“We think that our Iranian colleagues could be doing this a little faster,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters in Moscow Wednesday, the AFP reported. Continue reading

Iran nuclear advisor sets out ‘maximalist’ stance as Iran mulls new talks

Iran's IAEA ambassador Soltanieh and Iran's IAEA advisor Asgari attend a meeting on the Iranian nuclear issue in ViennaAmid a continued stalemate in efforts to resume nuclear talks, a key advisor to Iran’s nuclear negotiating team has published a proposal he says has been previously presented to the United States and five world powers for resolving international concerns about Iran’s nuclear program.

The author, Mahdi (or Mehdi) Mohammadi, the former political editor of Iran’s hardline Kayhan newspaper, is one of two key architects of Iran’s nuclear negotiating strategy under the team led by Iran National Security Advisor Saeed Jalili, an Iranian source who requested anonymity said.

The other is Hamid-Reza Asgari, the low-profile legal advisor to Iran’s Atomic Energy organization and senior non-proliferation advisor to Iran’s National Security Council. Asgari led Iran’s team to technical talks with arms control officials from the United States and other P5+1 powers in Istanbul July 3rd.. Asgari previously met with American, as well as Russian and French diplomats, in Vienna on October 21, 2009 to discuss the details of a nuclear fuel swap deal that later fell apart amid domestic infighting in Iran.

Asgari “is the real boss,” the Iranian source told the Back Channel.

“The two sides, according to Tehran, should first address each other’s concerns,”  Mohammadi wrote in Iran Review January 9th:

The United States should, thus, recognize Iran’s right to enrich uranium and Iran, in return, will announce that it has no plan to build nuclear weapons. In the next stage, the US and the European Union should remove all unilateral sanctions against Iran and Iran, for its part, will take immediate steps to address the remaining concerns of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) which the Western countries claim to be very important. In fact, a new round of IAEA’s inspections of and access to Iran’s nuclear sites will begin. In the third stage, Iran will be ready to negotiate about 20-percent enrichment provided that the United Nations Security Council will annul all its sanctions resolutions against Tehran. [...]

The proposal, which would not have Iran negotiate curbing its higher 20% uranium enrichment activities until the third step, after the lifting of US and European sanctions, might be viewed as a disheartening sign that Iran may still not be prepared to seriously negotiate. At the same time, it could be read as an Iranian effort not to appear over-eager for a deal, ahead of anticipated negotiations Tehran does hope will lead to sanctions relief.

“It’s all part of the pre-negotiation negotiation,” analyst Mark Fitzpatrick suggested.

“Iran is still in the opening salvo stages of negotiations, presenting its maximalist demands,” Fitzpatrick, a nuclear expert with the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), told the Back Channel Tuesday. “And clearly these so-called reciprocal concessions are not in the ballpark for what the six powers can accept. Because Iran is not really giving up anything other than 20%. No mention of Fordo, of its stockpile [of enriched uranium] and no limits on its 5% production.”

“Considering that [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad repeatedly said Iran could stop 20% in exchange for fuel for [the Tehran Research Reactor] TRR, now Iran is demanding everything for stopping 20%,” Fitzpatrick continued. “That is not a reasonable position for the P5. And they [the Iranians] need to get in the room and talk seriously.”

The publication of Tehran’s proposal comes as western negotiators have been waiting with growing discouragement for Iran to respond to numerous attempts to schedule a new round of talks with six world powers.

“We have spoken to them a number of times since before the new year and have offered dates and venue, but they still don’t come back with a straight answer,” Michael Mann, a spokesperson for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, told the Back Channel Monday. Continue reading

Buzz on Obama 2.0 Middle East team

Turkey's President Gul attends a meeting with U.S. Congressmen and U.S. ambassador to Turkey Wilson in Ankara

With President Obama expected to name more cabinet picks next week, including Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense, speculation has begun to turn to who will fill out senior and middle ranks of his second term Middle East team.

Among the questions affecting the transition shuffle is whether acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Elizabeth Jones will be formally nominated for the post under Secretary of State-nominee John Kerry, or, as seen as more likely, whether someone new will be tapped.

Jones, a career foreign service officer, is, like Kerry, the child of US Foreign Service parents, who spent much of her childhood abroad. A former Ambassador to Kazakhstan, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Near East, and Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs (2001-2005), Jones came out of retirement in the private sector (APCO Worldwide) to assist in the Near East bureau in 2011. She assumed the Acting Assistant Secretary job for the bureau after Jeff Feltman retired to take the number three job at the United Nations last May, but has not been formally nominated for the job.

Department sources said that some State rank and file officers are troubled that the Benghazi investigation resulted in the impending departure of Jones’ deputy, Raymond Maxwell. A career foreign service officer tapped as the DAS for Libya and the  Maghreb in 2011, Maxwell had been scheduled to retire this past September. He stayed on however after the Sept. 11 attacks that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other US personnel to try to get the Maghreb shop, devastated about the loss of their friend and colleague, through. The perception among some in the rank and file is that Jones let Maxwell take the fall, while escaping blame herself, in part because of her long professional relationship with Tom Pickering, the veteran diplomat who chaired the Benghazi Accountability Review Board investigation, department sources who declined to speak for attribution said. Jones and Maxwell did not immediately return requests for comment. A former official subsequently told the Back Channel that Jones is definitely planning to leave.

If Jones moves on, among those rumored to be under consideration to helm the Near East bureau, officials said, is Puneet Talwar, who has served as the Obama administration National Security Council Senior Director for Persian Gulf Affairs. Talwar, the former top Iran and Iraq advisor on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff under then SFRC chairman Joe Biden, is also said to be under consideration to become national security advisor to  Vice President Biden. (Current Biden national security advisor Antony Blinken is expected to get a promotion in the new term: among the posts he is discussed for, Deputy Secretary of State, Deputy National Security Advisor, or US Ambassador to the UN, if Susan Rice is named National Security Advisor.) Continue reading

Iran diplomat: Iran looking for endgame in nuclear talks

An Iranian diplomat tasked with liaising with foreign policy experts told reporters Friday he’s not very optimistic about upcoming nuclear talks, but did not rule out the prospect of a compromise on Iran’s 20% enrichment activities.

“Personally speaking, I am not optimistic,” Mostafa Dolatyar, the head of the Iranian foreign ministry think tank IPIS, told reporters at the Iranian embassy in New Delhi on Friday, Reuters reported.

“They”—the six powers that comprise the P5+1, the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, China and Russia—“have made certain connections with purely technical issues and something purely political,” Dolatyar continued. “As far as this is the mentality … from [the] 5+1…definitely there is no end for this game.”

Deputy nuclear negotiators from Iran and the P5+1 held a phone conversation Wednesday to initiate logistical planning for a new round of nuclear negotiations, Al-Monitor reported (December 12). Preparations for a new meeting have gotten underway as the six powers have been debating how to update a proposal  on curbing Iran’s higher 20% enrichment work, first presented to Iran at a meeting in Baghdad last May.

“The package has the same bone structure, but with some slightly different tattoos,” a senior US official was cited by the Washington Post Friday.

“Our assessment is that it is possible that they are ready to make a deal,” the official said. “Certainly, the pressure is on.”

Al-Monitor first reported in October that Iran’s leadership had tapped Dolatyar to serve as a central point of contact for approaches from outside-government foreign NGOs and nonproliferation experts, in an effort to reduce mixed messages ahead of anticipated resumed nuclear negotiations.

“Mostafa Dolatyar, a career Iranian diplomat who heads the Iranian foreign ministry think tank, the Institute for Political and International Studies (IPIS), was tapped by Iran’s leadership to coordinate contacts with American outside-government policy experts, including those with former senior US officials involved unofficially in relaying ideas for shaping a possible nuclear compromise,” Al-Monitor wrote October 31.

The appointment is the result of a desire “on the Iranian side for a more structured approach to dealing with America,” Mark Fitzpatrick, an Iran nuclear expert at the Institute for International and Strategic Studies (IISS) in London, told Al-Monitor in October.

Ahead of a new meeting–the date is still unclear, international negotiators have been debating how to update a proposal that would curb Iran’s higher 20% enrichment work on a short time table, given the size of Iran’s accumulated stockpile of fissile material and the concern that the Iranian leadership may become more politically distracted and uncompromising as it heads into its presidential elections in June.

Dolatyar, speaking to reporters Friday, offered a rationale for Iran’s 20% enrichment activities, saying it needed the fuel for medical purposes, but did not rule out the possibility of a compromise. Continue reading